Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Pictograph Cave

So, probably the most interesting thing we saw while in Billings, Montana, with the possible exception of the Rimrock (a cliff wall that stretches for miles and miles all along the north side of the city) was the Pictograph Cave, which is in a rimrock-like formation about five miles east of the city.

Although it's called a 'cave', that's actually something of a misnomer, since they're actually more like rock shelters -- recesses in the cliff where the rock is deeply undercut by erosion (in this case, from above; at Meadowscroft in Pennsylvania, from a nearby river that flows past). And there are three of them, not just one: Ghost Cave on the left, Pictograph Cave on the right, and Middle Cave (the shallowest of the three) between them. When we visited, Ghost Cave, Middle Cave, and the path between them were all fenced off, presumably because of rockfalls from the unstable clifftop above.

Despite having the Worse Signage Ever for any state park or historical site I've ever visited,* it's a fascinating place and well worth a visit if, like me, you like this sort of thing and happen to find yrself in the area. In addition to being a beautiful sight, we enjoyed watching the local rabbits (which pull themselves up into balls, like little boulders, rather than lay flat, like Kent rabbits), a hawk, some moo-ey nearby cows, and the antics of a small flock of ravens (who clearly roost atop the cliffs to the right and mightily objected to the hawk's hanging around over the cliffs to the left). Unfortunately, what they don't tell you till you reach the rock-shelter itself is that hardly any pictographs are left. There used to be plenty of them, but that was before they decided to do a restoration of the rock-paintings. With sandblasters. These days there are only a few faint markings left on the cave walls, with a display for you to compare what was once there and try to puzzle out where. In a way it was remarkably like the sun-bleached original copy of the Declaration of Independence we'd seen a month earlier, which is so faded that you can just tell there was once writing on it (well, on most of it) but not actually read any of it. Alas.

Since the rock-art shown on the mounted display was really unusual, I wanted to find a local postcard, or poster, or booklet, or anything of the sort showing the site and/or the pictographs. In this I was utterly unsuccessful. In fact, the guy at the best local/independent bookstore I found in Billings, said he'd never seen anything of the sort, and he had a good section on local Indian material.**

Luckily, sometimes the internet will provide. Turns out there's a pretty good website devoted to the Pictograph Cave, which includes both pictures of the area and tracings made of the pictographs before they were destroyed. Here's the link:

Click on the "Park Images" button on the left to see photographs of the site. For the lost pictographs themselves, click on the "Tracings" button a little further down on the left, then click on each icon to enlarge the picture. The only one of these that is still visible today, at least to someone with my eyesight, is the third one from the left on the top row, the images of seven rifles in red (which must have been some of the last added, given the topic).

As a Tolkienist, I was fascinated by how much the stranger and sillier of these Native American doodles reminded me of the 'goblin scribblings' mingled with the Neolithic cave paintings in Tolkien's famous painting in the 1932 Father Christmas Letter.


*Most such sites -- e.g., the various geyser basins at Yellowstone -- have little pamphlets you can pick up for a dollar that guide you around, but the equivalent here just pointed out interesting plants and the like in a vague way. Worst still, each little sign along the path bore a pictograph and was positioned so as to point you towards one of the surrounding cliffs. Therefore we quite naturally spent a good deal of time staring at the cliffs, trying to see the image before us in that rock wall. Turns out once you get to the display outside the main 'cave' that almost all those icons are of pictographs inside the cave, not on the surrounding cliffs. They were just added to those lookout signs as a decorative element, not because it was anything you could see from there. Gah!
These folks could have learned a lot from the people who set up the petroglyph walk near Kona in Hawaii (on the dry side of the Big Island), which (a) had some modern reproductions of petroglyphs near the parking lot for those mobility-impaired visitors who cdn't manage the walk to the actual site) and (b) had that actual site clearly marked.

**[I picked up an interesting oversized monograph on the Crow at the time of their contact with Lewis & Clark, along with a little book of troll legends which included the turned-to-stone-by-sunlight motif, and what must be Thor Heyerdahl's last book, which I'd not seen before.]

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